By Jeff Kolkey
Rockford Register Star
ROCKFORD, Ill. — The Rockford Fire Department has taken strides over the past two decades to fight cancer, an invisible occupational hazard faced every time a firefighter charges into a burning building.
But District Chief Dan Zaccard says some of those strides in terms of research, upgraded equipment and local policies may have come a little too late for veteran firefighters like him. Although now cancer-free and back at work, Zaccard, a 37-year veteran of the department, was sidelined for five months last year as he battled tonsil cancer that spread to his lymph nodes.
It wasn't unusual when Zaccard joined the department for firefighters to put out a fire and, overheated and drenched in sweat, rip off masks, air tanks and heavy fire coats. Smoke and fumes still hung in the air. It was considered cool for soot to cover sweaty arms, necks and faces.
It was worn like a badge of honor. They didn't know carcinogens could be hiding in that dirt.
"We used to take our face masks off when we were doing overhaul," Zaccard said. "So the fire's out. Just little hot spots. And incomplete combustion is the worst time to not wear your breathing apparatus. We didn't know that."
Research now shows carcinogens lurk in the fumes of melting plastics, burning construction materials and vaporized chemicals, in the soot smeared across a firefighter's face and in smoke from still-smoldering embers.
Studies suggest firefighters are twice as likely to develop testicular cancer as the general population, 1.5 times more likely to develop multiple melanomas and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and 1.2 times more likely to develop prostate and colon cancers, according to information from the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.
A bill being considered by Congress would require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin keeping a registry of firefighters who contract cancer to better track and compile data about the issue.
As more has become known about the increased risk posed to firefighters over the past two decades, fire commanders have taken steps to combat it, Chief Derek Bergsten said.
Fire stations have for years been outfitted with special ventilation systems to suck fumes directly from diesel-burning firetrucks to the outside.
Firefighters once slept next to their turnout gear to speed their way to the next emergency. But firefighters say carcinogens can linger on their gear and seep into their skin and bodies. The gear is now banned from sleeping quarters and is kept in the equipment bay.
Rockford firefighters have two sets of firefighting gear and are required to have it washed annually and after each fire incident to remove carcinogens.
Rockford firefighters are now being trained to guard against cancer. Moist wipes are on board every truck so that after a fire, the firefighters can wipe the soot from their faces, necks and arms. Signs are posted at the stations encouraging firefighters to shower immediately after returning from a fire and to change clothes.
Near the conclusion of every fire, hand-held meters are deployed to check levels of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide. Although they are not known carcinogens, those gases could indicate the presence of other toxins and contaminants, Bergsten said. Not until the gases fall to safe levels is the "all-clear masks" given, allowing on-scene firefighters to remove breathing gear.
"There aren't a lot of departments that do this," Bergsten said. "It's some of the stuff we try to be proactive on."
Zaccard is an athletic firefighter who won a gold medal in the 181 3/4 -pound weight class at the 1995 Police and Fire World Games in Melbourne, Australia, by bench-pressing 314.2 pounds. He took home silver in the 1997 competition.
Zaccard received a cancer diagnosis in March 2016. There was no pain, but a big lump had formed on the right side of his throat. He underwent surgery at the University of Wisconsin in Madison to remove his tonsils, about 20 cancerous lymph nodes and part of his thyroid gland.
More than 40 fellow firefighters took turns driving Zaccard back and forth to Madison 30 times over the ensuing months for radiation treatments.
"I had two, sometimes three guys taking me up there, which was cool because toward the end of it, I was really weak," Zaccard said. "The firefighter family was fantastic."
They also sold T-shirts, raising $2,000 to help cancer sufferers at SwedishAmerican Hospital, where Zaccard's wife, Kelsie, works as an oncology nurse, and other treatment centers. The money was spent on dozens of cases of Ensure nutrition drinks. Although it is sometimes the only thing cancer patients can swallow because of the treatments, it often isn't covered by insurance, Zaccard said.
The radiation annihilated Zaccard's cancer, but also left him nauseous and unable to eat. He lost 30 pounds within a couple of months, and weighed about 155 pounds at the end of radiation treatments. The radiation left blisters on his skin.
Routinely a member of what he calls the "300-pound club" at the gym, Zaccard could barely bench-press 185 pounds his first day back after radiation treatments were complete.
"I wanted to cry," said Zaccard, who has worked hard and is now bench-pressing 275 pounds. "Getting back into shape has been slow. I'm just glad the cancer is gone. It's gone."
Zaccard said the Rockford Fire Department is progressive when it comes to tackling firefighter health issues and is doing what it should when it comes to mitigating the risk of cancer.
But the city initially denied his workers' compensation claim, even though Illinois law when it comes to pensions presumes that firefighters who contract cancer do so as a result of work, Rockford Fire Local 413 President Christopher Scrol said.
The denial forced Zaccard, who because of his rank is not part of the union, to take sick and vacation days in addition to paying medical expenses. Zaccard has hired a lawyer, and there is going to be a hearing on the claim.
Scrol said firefighters are learning they are at increased risk not just for cancer, but also are susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder and problems associated with sleep deprivation. Scrol said the department is doing what it should to mitigate the risks of cancer with equipment, education and policies.
"But they are not doing a good job on how they treat firefighters after they do get cancer," Scrol said.
Copyright 2017 Rockford Register Star